A Colossal Interview
Susanna Bauer On the Tension Between Strength and Fragility in Her Stitched Leaves
March 2, 2020
Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with artist Susanna Bauer on the phone. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Grace: Can you tell us about how you first became interested in art? Did you grow up in a creative household or was it something that you fostered on your own?
Susanna: Well, I think becoming an artist developed out the various paths I’ve taken in my life and there have certainly been a lot of creative influences around me growing up. My mother used to knit a lot, and my grandmother was a seamstress and a keen gardener. I spent a lot of time at a close friend’s house, and that was an artist household with a painter father, her mother working in theatre and a potter living across the yard. I have always enjoyed making things as a child, although I wouldn’t call myself the classic “art kid.”
I’ve also always been drawn to nature, even as a child. I have grown up on the edge of small towns in Germany, close to rivers, lakes, and woods. I worked in plant nurseries in my holidays and after finishing school, I went on to study landscape architecture. With that came art and design lectures and introductions to artists and art history. That’s when I started to develop a broader knowledge about the art world, along with travels abroad to visit Italy and France.
My love for making and my curiosity about different creative techniques and processes eventually led me to becoming a model maker. Initially, I trained as an industrial design model maker, and then I moved to London because I wanted to explore different areas of model making. My work moved more towards advertising, special effects and film projects, but I also worked for fine artists in those years. Living in London was hugely inspirational, not only from a work point of view but also because of the many museums, shows, and exhibitions that I had the chance to see. Out of that grew a desire to follow my own creative path. I wanted to give more time to find my own way of artistic expression.
I think I’ve come to the arts as a career quite late in life, really, I was in my late 30s when I started studying at art school, part-time alongside working as a model maker. I studied at Camberwell College of Art in London, and absolutely loved it, finding so many different new ways to express myself. That was also the time when I first combined natural materials with thread. I created my first leaf project then, about 12 years ago now, and it was during this time that I found the beginnings of the work I do now.
Grace: So, you went into more commercial endeavors. Was that kind of your plan at the beginning? That you were going to do something like that rather than fine arts?
Susanna: The fine art world was something I came into much later. My first step was to follow my love for nature into a profession that had to do with working with the landscape. That’s why I first set out to study landscape architecture, where I learned a lot about plants, gardens, and ecosystems.
During that time, I was helping out at a film shoot in my spare time and met some prop makers and special effect technicians, and that was what inspired me to train as a model maker, purely following the love of making. It gave me the chance to learn all sorts of different techniques, sculpting, mold making, woodworking, plastics, miniature work, painting, engineering—basically training in all aspects of making. I have worked in the model-making industry for almost two decades, but during those years, I also carried on making things for myself outside of any commercial context, craft objects, small abstract sculptures, textile pieces.
Becoming an artist was a very gradual process, starting with my time at art school, bringing my interest in nature and my skills as a maker together and finding my own personal way of expression with the work I do now.
Grace: Do you source your materials, then, in the same way now that you did at the time? And do you schedule times to go out and look for particular leaves, or are you just going out whenever and finding different pieces?
Susanna: When I lived in London, I met my partner, an artist who was based in Cornwall, the far South-West tip of the U.K. where I live now. For several years, I was balancing my London time with country life. I was traveling to Cornwall as often as I could, which is about as different as it could possibly be to urban London. I went for a lot of walks, spent time in the wild Cornish countryside or on beaches, then go back to London and take my experiences from the Cornwall times back into my art studies. So, I think what started with occasionally bringing twigs, leaves or stones back from walks became more focused, when my own projects became more regular.
Now, it’s a bit of both, planned leaf collecting and random finds. I guess I look at my surroundings differently when I walk through nature. I look really closely. Or a particular leaf on the ground might just stand out, and then I take it with me. I’m very fortunate that I live in an area of great natural beauty, and yes, I have some favorite trees I go and visit regularly, but leaves get collected wherever. Sometimes I bring some back from travels. As I mainly work with fallen leaves, it is also is very dependent on the seasons, obviously, because some of them are only available during a certain time in the year.
Occasionally, when I’ve got a particular idea for a special project or a commission, I go out for some specific collecting, but there’s always an element of unpredictability in there because I never know what I’ll find. I’m quite selective about what I bring back to the studio. Of course, leaves are out there in abundance, but I’m quite particular about what comes back and what gets used.
Grace: Could you tell us a little bit about the parameters you set for choosing leaves, and do you base it off of trees, like that you know leaves from this tree will work well and this leaf from this other tree won’t? I’ve seen that you do a lot of magnolia leaves. How did you figure out that you liked those?
Susanna: That’s mainly to do with the fact that I just love the shape and the texture of magnolia leaves. They have got a kind of archetypal leaf shape with really clear strong veins, which really lends itself to a lot of what I want to express with my work. I just find them ideal to work with because of their visual appearance, but they can also grow quite large and are therefore very useful for larger 3D-pieces. But I work with many different other leaves too, they just have to dry well, and in terms of workability, that is a question of touching them. I just pick up a particular leaf, and I feel what I can do with it.
Grace: For the stitches, how do you decide what you use? Because you’re not using the same stitch on every leaf, is there a certain correlation that you make between the two?
Susanna: Well, that again depends entirely on what each individual piece of work wants to express. There are the simple crochet stitches that I use more sculpturally to join seams or to wrap a piece or to bridge gaps, connecting something. And for certain pieces, I use more ornamental lace-like patterns. In the last couple of years, I’ve taught myself more complex techniques to bring that side of my work to another level.
I’m fascinated by lacework. The history of lace making is really interesting and also the associations that come up when thinking about how lace was traditionally used, how precious it was and how long it takes to make. It’s probably one of the most delicate handmade craft techniques that has been developed, but it’s nothing compared to the intricacy that you find in natural patterns. If you look really closely at leaves, the fineness and the beauty of the veins is really incredible, like so many other structures in nature, and nothing comes close to that. I’m in total awe of that, and I would like to pay tribute to it in the best way I can. It’s my way of showing my appreciation and the love for what I see in nature.
Grace: You’ve been described as working in collaboration with nature rather than just using nature, and I’m wondering if you could maybe expand on that. Does that feel accurate to say that you’re working in collaboration?
Susanna: For me, the leaves are not just a material that I work with, that I put things onto. It’s much more than that. My work is a conversation with nature with human experience being a part of it. The leaves are my way into that and that conversation can take on many forms. Sometimes, it can be very personal, a reflection of a personal relationship, of family stories, the expression of an experience or thought, or sometimes, it can be a more general comment on the state of nature in context with humanity and what happens to the environment.
The way I see it is that each leaf comes with its own individual character. When you look at a pile of leaves, even from the same tree, each one is unique. Just like no two people are the same. We are nature. It’s not something that’s separate from us. It’s easy to lose sight of that connection. Working with the elements of the natural world in the studio helps me to keep that link to see how we all are connected and how we all are part of the same system. Nature is life and by working with it, it becomes a mirror to myself and a reflection of who we are as human beings.
Grace:It seems that you’re not interested necessarily in a human-centric view of nature or of the world. And maybe that we’re all kind of on a level-playing field, for lack of a better word.
Susanna: Yes, I feel like we’re all part of one big whole system, nature is not something that is separate from us, even though it gets treated like that sometimes. Our survival depends on it. That interplay between humans and nature is in a very delicate balance and so are human connections, human beings in existence with each other. It’s all a very fragile composition, isn’t it?
Grace: It is. And that’s something I wanted to ask you about, too, was the way that you think about fragility and strength. It does seem like that really relates to humanity and then using these really fragile leaves. But obviously, nature is strong, too. Could you speak to that a little bit and tell us more about how that relationship informs what you do?
Susanna: I’d like to approach that by looking at the process aspect of my work and the mechanics of crochet, which as a technique is all about working with tension, with the tension of the thread pulling against such a fragile material as a leaf. This becomes an interesting metaphor—the concept of the actual making process that translates as an idea for the meaning of the work—the delicate, tender connections that we live within, conveying the fragility but also the resilience of life. By working with an organic material in combination with a technique that is all about tension, this literal approach becomes very symbolic. If you pull too much, the leaf will break, but with careful handling, time and respect, it is amazing how much strength and flexibility it holds.
It’s like the fragile contract we have with all relationships, on an individual level, as well as on a global level. That’s when my work can span from a personal relationship to a universal message that applies to all of us and how our connection to nature is a precarious one.
With my work, I’m trying to express something that is felt rather than expressed with words. I’m using my visual language to say something that is abstract, just like life is profound and abstract. Sometimes it carries more meaning to hit on certain things in a way that is felt rather than explained, and I’m hoping to touch on these sensitive issues and convey my thoughts through the way that I work with my chosen materials—holding the balance, literally between the tension of pulling the thread and not breaking the leaf, and with everything in life.
Grace: Obviously, the climate crisis is a huge conversation right now, rightly so. I’m wondering how you think of that in relation to your work? How will it affect your work in the future if we lose more trees than we’ve already lost? Or if you’re already thinking about that and putting ideas of that into your work?
Susanna: I think for me, everything links back to how we treat our planet and our relationship with the natural world. The human impact on the earth and the decline of undisturbed natural environments, which contributes to the climate crisis, is a massive issue. I think an awareness shift needs to happen on a very large scale. Developing more sensitivity or even beginning to have a sensitivity for the resources that we’ve got is a really important aspect. Slowing down, being mindful to notice what is around us might help with that process, even if it is just observing a pattern on a leaf. It’s about seeing what’s going on and opening eyes to that. It matters a great deal, I think, and hopefully, everybody’s changes and contributions eventually will lead to a big shift in the current crisis.
Grace: What are you working on now? Is there anything you can tell us about?
Susanna: I’m currently preparing work for an exhibition in Japan this summer and I’m also working on a book at the moment, which is still in its early stages. More details will be up on my website in the coming months.
Grace: Congratulations! That’s very exciting.
Susanna: Yes, thank you, I’m very excited about it too and I will keep you posted. But right now, my work is part of a show in the Netherlands that runs until mid-April. The exhibition is called Precious Paradise at the Rijswijk Museum near La Hague.
You can find more of Bauer’s nature-based work on Instagram.